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"Suburbs" and the idea of Washington in the late 19th century

from The Washington Post, April 19, 1891

Between the city and suburbia

Many of the most contentious subjects in D.C. urbanism and preservation today involve distinctions between the L'Enfant-planned city - denser neighborhoods mostly inside the "topographic bowl" - and outlying neighborhoods of mostly single-family houses, especially in Ward 3, which are in the District but are, as an historical property type, first-ring or streetcar suburbs. The "suburban" character of these neighborhoods is an object of scorn to many urbanists who inhabit denser parts of D.C., while residents of less-dense neighborhoods have been known to look with disdain on the "truly" suburban places well outside the District line. (Witness the small episode in the endless battle over the Cleveland Park Giant in which some residents didn't want a tower on their grocery store because it would be "too suburban", or the distaste for "Potomac-style" McMansions in prewar, in-city "suburbs".) 

These early "suburbs" occupy a contested space between Washington and D.C., as it were: proudly Washingtonian but more than ambivalent towards D.C.'s government (a can of worms for a different post); used to enjoying the best of all possible worlds by being both within the city and removed from it (with all that entails in racial politics, of course). All these tensions made me curious about how the early developers and residents of such neighborhoods thought of themselves in relation to D.C. What follows is an exploration of the relationship between late-19th-century suburban development in and around D.C., and the emergence of the modern sense of Washington as a geographical and political entity. 

Suburban development as background to the McMillan Plan

"Suburban" development in the District of Columbia and adjacent parts of Maryland took place over the last quarter of the nineteenth century in an environment in which the idea of what Washington was becoming was contested. Suburbs – privately developed in an atmosphere of mostly unregulated growth – were variously defined by their proponents in contrast to the city as a lifestyle choice and to undeveloped countryside; to the City of Washington as it had developed during and after the Civil War; to the Federal District with its anomalous status in the United States' system of representative government; and to one another. 

The conventional narrative about the forces that converged in the Senate Park (McMillan) Plan of 1901 emphasizes concerns about unplanned development in the federal city in the century after L'Enfant's plan, and the effort by McMillan Commission members to create a capital city befitting America's growing status in the world – a capital "worthy of the nation." By this account, the McMillan Plan created, in the public imagination and on the ground, the modern image of the capital city. Less considered is the role played by the explosion of suburban development in and around the District of Columbia in the two decades preceding the McMillan Plan. In particular, a decade-long suburban real estate boom, concentrated in the period from the reform of the federal civil service in 1883 to the Panic of 1893 and simultaneous, belated attempts by Congress to regulate growth in the District, gave Washingtonians cause to think through the relationships among Washington the capital city, the District of Columbia outside the L'Enfant-planned area, and the jurisdictions outside the District. By the early 1890s, the idea of what Washington was had shifted from Boundary Street to the District line. Observers surveying the decade's suburban development associated precisely that rapid, unregulated growth with the emergence of Washington as a world-class city.

Suburbs contiguous with the L'Enfant City 

The District of Columbia Organic Act of 1871, the act that created the District's short-lived territorial government, unified into a single municipal entity the separate jurisdictions of the City of Washington (the area planned by L'Enfant), Georgetown (the pre-existing port town to its west), and Washington County (the area within the ten miles square set apart from Maryland for the federal district but outside the other two jurisdictions, and minus the Virginia bits, which had been retroceded in 1847). The 1871 act thereby created on paper, at least, the District of Columbia as we know it today. That unified jurisdiction survived the dissolution of the territorial government of the District in 1874. However, the notion of the City of Washington as distinct from the areas outside the borders of the L'Enfant city persisted for more than a generation. The strength of the boundary of the L'Enfant City in the local imagination is apparent from the places named as suburbs in before the late-nineteenth-century press. An article on the history of Georgetown in The Washington Post in 1878 is headed "The Simple Annals of Our Venerable Suburb." A dozen years later, an article trumpeted the development of Eckington under the headline, "Beautiful Eckington: Transformation of a Primeval Forest to a City's Suburb"! The fact that these communities were contiguous with the L'Enfant city in no way disqualified them as suburbs.

The role of the federal workforce in the definition of "Washington" and "suburb"

The stubbornness of the boundaries of the L'Enfant city and the patterns of suburban development in the last quarter of the nineteenth century can be explained in large measure by the federal workforce and the federal government's attitude towards Washington in the aftermath of the dissolution of the territorial government. The consolidation of Washington's separate jurisdictions into a single entity and its brief moment of home rule in the early 1870s had been a response to the crisis in infrastructure created by the huge influx of troops, federal workers, and population during the Civil War. After the territorial government was dissolved in 1874, Congress more or less gave up interest in improving Washington, and repeatedly over the next twenty years tried to disown responsibility for financing any improvements outside the L'Enfant City. That neglect suggests both the strong identification of Washington, the federal city, with the L'Enfant-planned area, and the limitations of direct Congressional rule.

The population of the District, however, did not stop expanding. The District's population increased from 75,000 at the start of the Civil War to 178,000 by 1880, and had reached 230,000 by 1890. Federal jobs expanded by 600 percent between 1860 and 1880. Federal clerks' wages were very good by contemporary standards; the passage of the Pendleton Civil Service Reform Act in 1883 gave federal workers the job security necessary to turn them into potential home-buyers. (Howard Gillette, Jr., Between Justice and Beauty: Race, Planning, and the Failure of Urban Policy in Washington, D.C. (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), p. 74-75.) The population and workforce boom drove development and land speculation, aided, but not in the first instance caused, by advances in transportation technology. In 1886, the Washington Post reported, "The rapid development of the city and suburbs of Washington has led to the formation of a company to buy Montgomery County, Md., [all of it, apparently!] and make it a city of suburban villas." One of the promoters of the new company quoted in the article said, bluntly, "the main idea of the organization is to give government clerks something to do with their money." ("Among Real Estate Men," The Washington Post, October 31, 1886, p. 2.) Clearly private developers were more than prepared to take up the slack if the government was not going to plan for the orderly expansion of the city.

In April of 1884, the Post reported, "Many strangers coming to Washington to reside permanently...People are buying property all over the city, in places where it has not formerly been desirable for speculation." The author quotes a real estate agent as saying that Washington was becoming a "pretty good place to live even in the summer....The city is bound to grow in all directions," so land anywhere was an investment. People from out of town were investing in undeveloped property. "Many pretty houses are going up in the northern suburbs," reported the Post – Southern-style houses with verandas in Mount Pleasant; Queen Anne-style homes in Columbia Heights. ("A Good Place to Live In," The Washington Post, April 28, 1884, p. 4.) In late 1886, it was still possible for some to predict that the boom would be to the south and east. An architect was quoted in the Post in October 1886 believed that people would rather live in the city, and that "after all, the city will extend itself to the east as those who first planned it intended." ("Among Real Estate Men," The Washington Post, October 31, 1886, p. 2.) More realistic appraisals of what was happening focused northward.

Before streetcars: discontinuous development

Washington shared with other nineteenth-century cities the phenomenon whereby both very-close-in and much-farther-out suburbs developed before in-between ones. Before the introduction of electric streetcars, which became technologically possible in 1887 and started running in Washington in 1890-91, it was feasible for people to live in the lower-lying areas immediately adjacent to the city boundaries, where horse-drawn streetcars could reach, or at stops along the B&O Railroad, at or beyond the District line in Maryland. The introduction of electric streetcars opened up the intervening space for development. In Washington, that meant all of the former Washington County, the upland areas of the District of Columbia high enough for pleasant breezes and views and too high for horse-drawn streetcars to reach with any speed or efficiency.

This discontinuous pattern of development meant that several models for the physical development of suburbs were already familiar by the time streetcar suburbs within or at the District line began development. The close-in suburbs bordering Boundary Street could have lot sizes and building stock little differentiated from adjacent parts of the city proper. At the outer reaches of commuter territory, railroad suburbs might be country towns whose stations had brought them within the metropolitan ambit, or they might be planned communities of "villas" or "cottages" along the lines suggested by Andrew Jackson Downing and early model suburbs like Riverside, IL. In the absence of regulation, developers of the 1880s and '90s who were seeking to capitalize on Washington's housing shortage by opening up the rural areas of the former Washington County could to a large extent shape their own built environments, choosing the alignment of streets, the size of lots, the location of transit, and, to varying degrees, shaping the kind of architecture the new suburbs would contain.

L'Enfant's nuanced if imperfectly-realized plan of grid plus avenues apparently had little to recommend it to the developers of the late nineteenth century. LeDroit Park, founded in 1873 on the north side of Boundary Street, has a street grid notoriously and intentionally set at angles to the L'Enfant Plan's streets, "to enhance the psychological as well as physical distance between city and suburb." (Gillette, p. 78.) Other close-in, pre-streetcar suburbs followed a similar pattern. By the end of the 1870s, the Assistant Engineer Commissioner of Washington deplored this patchwork of subdivisions and warned that "the District government will be required at no distant day to expend large sums for damages incurred in straightening out the streets of these villages." A decade later, the Engineer Commissioner called LeDroit Park "'a thorn in the side of the District' for throwing itself across the northern part of the city and compelling everybody to go around it." (Both quoted in Gillette.)

The coming of streetcars

By 1888, Congress and the Commissioners of the District of Columbia were finally taking notice of snowballing suburban development, but they exerted no planning authority and provided no significant financing when electric streetcars came to the city. The prospect of electric streetcars moved Congress to ban overhead wires in the L'Enfant City in the District appropriations bills for 1888 and 1889. That is, Congress's response to the new technology was not to look to its implications for the District of Columbia as a whole, but rather to move to protect the federal core. The same innovation moved real estate speculators to buy up vast portions of undeveloped land in and adjoining the District and build the infrastructure to get home-buyers there. Congress's far-sighted action is still creating red-tape headaches for 21st-century transportation planners, while the developers' moves materially shaped the way people live in large parts of the District today.

The 1890s: Suburban development and Washington's status as a capital city

By the early 1890s, commentators in local papers were starting to articulate the connection between the growth of the city to fill out the boundaries of the District and the growth in prominence of Washington as a capital. An 1890 year-end round up of interviews with prominent local businessmen about the progress and needs of the city touched on the introduction of streetcars, the pace of building everywhere, and the improvement of roads; called for a moratorium on alley dwellings, improvements to sidewalks and sewers. "It is only a matter of time before the city will be the pride of the nation...most evil influences and conditions are gradually being eradicated." ("Onward and Upward: Thankful for Great Progress, The City is Still Ambitious," The Washington Post, November 27, 1890, p. 7.) An April, 1891 article in the Post reviewed the state of suburban development as a whole. "The future of the country is the future of Washington." "It has been only twenty years since Washington awoke from a long and quiet sleep under a genial Southern sun. Fifteen years ago it was still yawning and wondering whether it would pay to get up or go to bed again. Ten years ago it began to feel new life coursing through its vein, and five years ago it commenced to prepare itself for new duties and responsibilities, and to feel that it really was of some importance in the world." ("Outside of the City Limits, Millions Have Been Invested: A Comprehensive Review of the Marvelous Development Which Is in Progress Around the Nation's Capital," The Washington Post, April 19, 1891, p. 14.) The glorious future embodied in and portended by the past decade's boom was seen as expressing itself chiefly in the growth of the suburbs. The Post's editorial board chose to mark that progress not by surveying improvements in the city proper, which it said were well known to everyone, but to present "a bird's-eye view, so to speak, of the work which is in progress at the city's doors." "It will be a revelation to those who have given no heed to the transformations which have transformed the hills...adjacent to Washington into...flourishing suburban towns." Washington was promoted as a place men of accomplishment could congregate in luxurious (and well-paved), congenial social surroundings after they had made their fortunes elsewhere.

A choice of styles

As suburban development was proceeding simultaneously on multiple fronts in the late 1880s and '90s, buyers could in principle choose from communities along a continuum from carefully-groomed "country" town (Chevy Chase), to woodland idyll (Takoma Park), to a large number of inner suburbs offering commodious, architecturally-current townhouses at different prices (Mount Pleasant, Columbia Heights, Kalorama). An advertisement for Cleveland Park promises "artistic" homes, as in Takoma Park, and "No houses in rows" – a selling-point not just in contrast to the old city neighborhoods, but to contemporary suburbs consisting of high-end townhouses, like next-door Woodley Park. The architectural continuum, from rowhouses just outside the old city boundary to woodland villas, helped link the new developments to the city even as it differentiated the suburban real estate market.

The real estate columns of the papers in this period go into great detail about the style, amenities, layout, and interior finishes of the houses recent buyers were building in these new neighborhoods. Although the newspaper articles generally do not include extensive illustrations, their word-painting is sufficient to inform the prospective home-buyer about what it will take to keep up with the Joneses. Moreover, the papers and advertisements list exactly who has bought houses in the suburbs, naming senators and congressmen, cabinet secretaries, professors, engineers, military officers, and other well-known Washington professionals. The implication is not just that new buyers would be guaranteed neighbors of a certain class, but that they were being invited to join a particular community. Many years of this kind of weekly (sometimes daily) reporting not only fueled the building boom; it no doubt helped create in readers a mental geography of Washington in which men of importance were committing to year-round residence, investing in Washington's future, and populating the whole of the District as envisioned in the 1871 amalgamation.

Shifting the notion of "Washington" away from Boundary Street

Two small but telling observations in the press in the early 1890s provide a measure of how far the thinking about the City of Washington, its suburbs, and the District of Columbia had come in past decade. The same survey article quoted above, "Outside of the City Limits," discloses the beginning of a breakdown in the dominance of the L'Enfant boundaries in the public imagination. The author mentions "Le Droit Park, which cannot now be considered as suburban, whatever it might have been when it was planned." The comment probably has much to do with the perceived threat from African Americans in the neighborhood adjoining LeDroit Park, against whom LeDroit's white residents had erected a fence and, later, barbed wire. However, the remark points, for better or worse, to other factors shaping the distinction between city and suburb than the location of Boundary Street. In the 1870s, neither demographics, nor proximity to the city, nor building stock would have trumped the old city border in defining a neighborhood as suburban.

The other surprising innovation in thinking comes from the outer edges of suburban development. In 1890, the developers of Charlton Heights (scene of the man breakfasting in his negligee on his lawn quoted earlier) tried a new tack in differentiating their subdivision from all the others. The Post ran a typical promotional piece on the suburb under the headline, "Voting for President: Rights of Citizenship Guaranteed Charlton Heights Residents":

Charlton Heights, in addition to being one of the most desirable residence spots in the vicinity of the National Capital, has another attraction which should not be overlooked by persons who desire to exercise their prerogatives as voters of the United States. Two years hence, there will be a National election for President, and it requires a year's sojourn in Maryland to qualify a voter to cast his ballot on such a momentous question. (The Washington Post, July 27, 1890, p. 5) 

This was by no means new information, but it is the first instance I have found in which it is explicitly invoked as a feature distinguishing Maryland from District suburbs. It reflects a new sense of the District as a fully-populated jurisdiction with year-round residents of every class.

Emergence of a civic consciousness among "suburban" property owners

It is no surprise that the 1890s should have brought some new awareness of the limitations of home-owning citizenship in the District of Columbia. As the new suburbs of the 1880s were built out and began to be served by streetcars, residents began to test their civic voice in demanding better services and infrastructure. The papers and the Annual Reports of the Commissioners of the District of Columbia from this period are full of neighborhood groups demanding redress of grievances. Mount Pleasant residents wanted the streetcar to go further up the hill into their neighborhood. Woodley Park and Cleveland Park residents wanted a road opened through Klingle Valley. (Plus ça change...) New suburbs on the Maryland side of the border could incorporate as towns and issue bonds to fund further improvements, while District suburbs were dependent on the solvency and continued interest of their developers and appropriations (generally not forthcoming) from Congress. The situation must have worsened considerably with the severe economic downturn after the Panic of 1893 – a year in which Congress was suddenly moved to act to regulate development in a way that brought development to a screeching halt. (The Highway Act of 1893, which was designed to harmonize the suburban street system with the L'Enfant Plan, created the fear that tracts of suburban property would be condemned to implement the new street system.)

The fundamental change in the perception of what Washington was and could be, however, was not erased by the end of the boom. It laid the groundwork for the McMillan Plan and the early-20th-century completion of the plans made by the developers of the 1880s and '90s. The Senate Park Commission's vision not only for a dignified monumental core but for amenities for full-time residents reflects two decades' concrete demonstration that there was a market for such amenities, as well as a desperate need for intelligent planning. 

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